Producer, filmmaker and author of bestselling memoir Buck, MK Asante capped 2019 by debuting a freshly minted docuseries with Snapchat called While Black With MK Asante.
Aimed at examining the varied experiences, consequences and struggles of being Black in contemporary times, While Black is now slated to kick off Black History Month 2020 with a continued rollout of five new episodes.
While Black’s goal isn’t just earning stake in a political atmosphere laden with anti-Black agency, Asante’s conviction is more importantly rooted in creating dialogue and telling our own stories, “unashamedly, proudly, and boldly.”
Citing today’s youth as the Black community’s greatest weapon against political, environmental and educational warfare, Asante stresses the importance of investing in and acknowledging those fighting for change at the grassroot level. By concentrating on matters most relevant to people of color right now, the Snapchat series explores everything from criminalizing children to Black Lives Matter to the N-word.
“While Black also features rappers like Mez,” Asante told BET. “He just directed the ‘Middle Child’ music video for J. Cole. Mez talks about cultural appropriation. That's an amazing episode because, obviously, he’s a dope musician as well.”
Rappers aren’t the only celebrity subjects with something to say here. Since the inception of Black Lives Matter, for instance, adjacent freedom fighters have helped spawn other political campaigns and activists, namely around athletes.
“We also focused on sports protest this season. We did a really dope episode where we went down to University of California in Los Angeles and we talked to this sister, Kaia. She's a soccer star and she's been kneeling for a couple seasons now,” Asante said, alluding to the ripple effect of Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 protest against racial injustice.
“She's had to endure a lot because of that. She's made a lot of sacrifices. We talked to her. We also focused not just on Colin Kaepernick and her, but the history of the Black body and Black athletes such as John Carlos and Muhammad Ali. That’s a really special episode.”
Here, MK Asante details how the show came together, key subjects, the importance of intergenerational discourse and how he’s celebrating this February. Be sure to watch the premiere episode at the bottom; subscribe to While Black here.
BET: Considering the way Snapchat is set up, what made you decide that this was the right platform to tell our stories?
MK Asante: For a few different reasons. One is, I think the numbers are like 85 percent of 13 to 24-year-olds are on Snapchat. The other reason is that Snapchat is innovative when it comes to mobile storytelling. As you noticed, there’s Snap Originals. These are shows that are shot and they're produced with mobile in mind. The way we shoot the show is actually thinking about vertical video. It's kind of a different way to tell the story because, traditionally, you're using horizontal 16-by-9 frame.
When you’re telling story vertically, there's things that you do differently and are more conscious of. It gives us some new liberties, so we like to explore those, [like] doing a lot of split-screen stuff. You're already looking at your phone, so it's kind of organic to the experience that the video that you're watching is intended for vertical.
BET: Makes sense. Tell me a little bit about the process that it took to bring the show together. Like what are some of the key components or the key people involved?
Asante: I think the key components is just everybody coming together. It's a joint venture between Snapchat, Indigo Development and Entertainment Arts, NBC Universal and Main Event Media. All these players coming together to really tell a story and talk about what it means to be young, gifted and Black in America right now.
What I wanted to do was highlight and feature young people that are making a difference in their communities. In the first five episodes that have already launched, we feature people like Don Diva Abdullah from Compton. She's 15 years old. She’s a Black Lives Matter activist and just the work that she's doing and what she's been able to change in her school district.
We feature people like Scott Hoadley, who's basically like a modern-day Ida B. Wells. He goes around and documents injustices with the cops then brings charges and follows up on it and gets the community involved. We've been highlighting young people who are just going above and beyond. To me, those are the people that make up the show and who are the most important. The show is really a reflection of the people that I interact with. I'm from Philadelphia originally, but I've lived all over the world and interacted with people all over the diaspora. So I try to reflect that in the show. We shot some of it in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and we'll be moving to different places throughout.
BET: You mentioned some of the stories that were told in the last season, which are incredibly important and powerful. Would you say that this show is your way of having a stake in the political conversation happening today?
Asante: I think everything is political, anyway. Whether there's an election or not, things are always political. It's really important to be aware of the political nature of everything. It's important that when you think you're not [being] political, you’re actually supporting the status quo. I think there's a lot of young people right now, and a lot of people in the world in general, who don't support the status quo and want to say something.
We did the episode where we featured an individual named Madden. Madden quoted Gwendolyn Brooks, who said, “Courage isn't the absence of fear, but the recognition that some things are more important than our own fear.” That's basically what I see within a lot of the young people is courage and fearlessness. Even if there is fear, the courage and the recognition that what they're fighting for is more important outweighs that fear and it doesn't show. It inspires people that are older than them.
BET: We're coming up on a really important month: Black History Month. What can viewers can expect from the new episodes?
Asante: We're tackling a bunch of new, different issues in the next season. One of the things that stands out to me about the next five episodes is intergenerationality. There's one episode in particular where we talk about the N-word; we shot that in Philadelphia. That's really an intergenerational conversation. It’s very interesting because I think the youngest person in that conversation is probably like 14, 15, and then [there’s] my pop, who's 79.
He grew up one of 16 children in Valdosta, Georgia, and got spat on when he was 12 by a sharecropper. His relationship to the word is going to be different than a young boy in Philly who is 15. It’s a really dope episode, and I'm really proud of that episode because I think that's an important conversation to be having as an intergenerational one.
BET: Would you say your work is autobiographical, do you pull from your real-life experiences?
Asante: Yeah, definitely. A lot of times, that’s what I'm most passionate about. It's what I really care about. I care about the people that are like... My nephew, Nasir, that's like my son. The issue of gun violence on one sense is ideological and philosophical. We could debate it all day. But all of these issues that we're dealing with in the show, I have direct [connection to].
We talk about the prison industrial complex, that's the reason why my nephew is my son. It's just so many things that all hits home for me. That's why I'm passionate about it, and I think that's definitely what drives me. I understand these things from a few different levels. I can understand things from an intellectual perspective, but I also understand things from the way they are on the ground.
BET: We Black 365, but tell me, how are you celebrating this month?
Asante: It's definitely something that we do 365. But this February, I'm definitely going to remember the great Oscar Micheaux, first African-American filmmaker. Really, [he was] the first filmmaker of color just because of resources and circumstances. He was an amazing storyteller and, to me, it stresses the idea and brings home the idea of using all of these tools that we have. Whatever tools we have. If it’s a camera, a pen or a paint brush, I'm using it to tell our stories, and doing so unashamedly, proudly and boldly. That's what we're doing with While Black.
I think people like Oscar in this show remind us about courage. This man was in 1920, 1921 making feature films. Think about the laws that were on the books back then. Think about how difficult it was to just exist. And this man made 44 films in the span of about 25 years. Oscar Micheaux wrote books, then he took his books door to door, got the money from that, [and] bought land in North and South Dakota. This is a Black man.
Then, he went to Chicago, hired white drivers, got the white drivers to drive the Black actors to Idaho, North Dakota or wherever they started. His studio made the movies. But then when he made the movies, they didn't want to distribute his sh*t because he was Black. So then him and some other Black businesspeople brought their own cinemas and distributed their own damn movies in their own movie houses. This is why there’s an Oprah Winfrey or Tyler Perry—we got this legacy. We got to honor that and remember that ownership, being a means of production and telling your own stories are vitally important to our existence, our legacy and our future. That's what I'm celebrating this February.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
(Photo by Lee Steffen, courtesy of PMK•BNC)